14 March 2000

Ouf! It’s a game!

Smoking with Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard’s lecture in London last Friday did not take place. But don’t be alarmed: the aim of thought, after all, is not truth or reality. Thinking is the art of making things disappear. Let’s try, then, to make this impish, septuagenarian matre à penser disappear too.

Picture, if you will, Baudrillard in the chemistry lecture theatre of University College, London. Gazing down from a side wall is a vast chart of the periodic table, whose elements huddle together for comfort, anxious at the appearance in their midst of this unpredictable catalyst. Baudrillard looks wonderfully like a hyperreal cafe Frenchman: short, rotund, in a crumpled suit, with tufts of golden-grey hair poking out from his temples. But that appearance is a mask.

To an audience of alternately amused and blankly bamboozled architecture students, Baudrillard delivers an hour of sizzlingly dense, rococo argumentation in his warm but near-impenetrable Gallic tones. He explains his love of taking photographs, and mercilessly dissects the poverty of modern art. He laments the loss of magic, the fact that in an age of technical explanation, the universe has now “fallen” into a banal reality. The universe is given to us ready-made, like Duchamp’s urinal. And art has no answer to this; it can only rehearse the disaster. “To turn an object into art,” Baudrillard smiles, “you just have to make it useless.” But the idea of uselessness is itself useless. Today, we merely enjoy the idea of art, not art itself.

Why? Baudrillard calls it “image-feedback”. The image masks itself with an idea of itself. It constantly transforms itself into a message, and thus prevents us from seeing. Meaning, the omnipresent, choking smog of the post-industrial era gets in the way. This is true of all visual media. “It is the TV that looks at us,” he insists, “from a blind spot, from nothing.” Our gaze is turned back from this dead zone and blinds us.

And yet there is hope. Perhaps a certain sort of image could “break the screen”. And perhaps photography is the weapon for this violent liberation. Because photography, if it avoids being assimilated to a message, can be unintelligible: the opposite of thinking. The potential for “something that is neither true nor real, but is beautiful”. That is Baudrillard’s plea, his challenge.

Across the road after the lecture we congregate in the bar, drinking beer while Baudrillard’s own photos are projected in triptych on the walls. The images are inscrutable. An empty red armchair faces out at the viewer, enacting the disappearance of a human body, whose shape remains, in Baudrillard’s own beautiful phrase, “like a smile”. Close-ups of brick walls or alleys radiating in ecstasies of brown and blue; a lone bicycle gazing out over a golden river; a philosopher’s still-life of book, pens, ashtray and coffee bowl; keys on a cafe table; splotches of red and black paint on a wall, almost humanoid. These stories of charged absence continue to glow on the walls as the bar empties and the chatter fades.

The next morning I meet Baudrillard at his hotel in South Kensington. “Oh, the grand homme himself!” chirps the receptionist, after I repeat the magic code of his name. Downstairs in the bar, Baudrillard drinks black coffee and smokes a cigarette he has rolled in advance; he delivers a rolling monologue in an English-French hybrid. It’s early, but the twinkle in his eyes bespeaks pure joy in thought. “Ouf, it’s a game!” he says, as if astonished that anyone could think otherwise of thinking.

But sometimes even champions need a break. That’s why Baudrillard took up photography, as a way of escaping writing and thinking. “I began to photograph without any ambitions,” he says, “not to be exhibited. It was just surprise encounters with objects, with situations, with lights.” He had tried to take portraits of people, but “it’s a disease of mine before human beings,” he confesses. “I cannot take them as subjects. With objects it’s an elective affinity, as far as they are traces of the living human world.”

His photographs, he hopes, are without “meaning”. For Baudrillard adores unintelligibility. There is not enough of it around. “Gone is the innocence of nonsense,” he said wistfully in his lecture. But he tries his best: “It is the task of radical thought, since the world is given to us in unintelligibility, to make it more unintelligible, more enigmatic, more fabulous.”

That is why we love Baudrillard: because he can do this. But that is not to say he is a mere conjurer of nonsense. Baudrillard foresaw the allure of virtual reality long before William Gibson; he was in the vanguard of Marxian critiques of modern consumerism; before it became fashionable, he wrote a scintillating analysis of man’s sentimental exploitation of animals. Baudrillard got there first, many times. And now his self-imposed task is “this art of taking reality as fiction, taking fiction as a hyperreality”. To shock us into realising that thought and the world need not be as they are.

That is why we love him; it is also why he enrages a certain stodgy, anti-imaginative Anglo-American sensibility. Baudrillard is most infamous in non-philosophical circles for having said that the Gulf war did not take place. The theory is that these days, the “model” precedes the event and exhausts it totally in advance. The Gulf war was played out as simulation before any tanks began rolling, and then it was played out again as simulation through videogame-style missile-runs on TV. Behind this orgiastic virtuality, the “real” event was nowhere to be seen.

Baudrillard’s pioneering analysis is now common – so thoroughly domesticated as to figure in such books as Michael Ignatieff’s recent Virtual War. A few years ago, Baudrillard also claimed that the year 2000 would not happen. So? Did it? “No,” Baudrillard insists gleefully. “Because we were already in the 21st century long before we came to this dead point. We abused the scenario of the millennium long before it happened. Now, we stay in the 20th century. We have not really passed over. We don’t live in a rational time…”

But what, pray, is a “rational time”? The most high-profile charge levelled against Baudrillard’s game of thinking came a few years ago from Alan Sokal’s and Jean Bricmont’s book, Intellectual Impostures, which named Baudrillard among a phalanx of French “postmodernist” thinkers who regularly abuse scientific concepts. It caused a huge storm in France, and an ejaculation of happy sneering over here, fortifying the complacent impression of those who had never bothered to read any French philosophy that it was all a load of rubbish.

Up until now, Baudrillard has not dignified the attack with a public reply. I ask him about it, and he sighs simply: “It’s a misunderstanding of metaphor.” It is further, in his view, based on an outmoded idea of the scientific process. Nowadays, Baudrillard argues, we know that hypotheses are never verified – “they give way to other hypotheses. And thought has always been like that… I was surprised that no scientist ever answered to Sokal himself as a scientist.” And then he adds, with a devious grin: “In a way it was a compliment.”

To be accused of imposture, after all, is not necessarily a bad thing. “There is a good use of imposture,” he points out slyly. “It is the art never to take a definite posture. The ability to metamorphose posture.” Indeed, Baudrillard’s own career has been an exercise in balletic shifts of pose. In 1991 he summed up his intellectual journey: he had been a pataphysician at 20 (the term is Dadaist: a scientist of imaginary solutions), then “situationist at 30, utopian at 40, transversal at 50, viral and metaleptic at 60. That’s my history.”

Now Baudrillard is 70: so what is it this time, monsieur? He laughs: “I ought never to have said that. Well, let’s see, at 70, I would say that I am… beyond the end. It was my fateful strategy to go beyond the concept, so as to see what happens beyond.”

So where next for the perpetually self-reinventing man, the David Bowie of philosophy? Becoming digital? Well, Baudrillard rather likes the idea of the internet voraciously sucking up the world, because that would “leave thought alone in its radicality”, although he doesn’t use the net himself. “I cannot see a text, a modulation of thinking, on a screen – on a screen I can only see an image…” Yet nor does he prophesy cyber-doom. “I did this critique of technology, but I would not do that any more. I am not nostalgic. I would not oppose liberty and human rights to this technical world.”

For now, Baudrillard has another book due out in France – the final volume of his delightful journals, Cool Memories. And then? “After that, maybe I become an artist.” I wish him luck. “Ouf, on verra! ” he chuckles, and with that, Jean Baudrillard puffs on his cigarette and wanders back upstairs, leaving only the traces in my notebook behind.